In battle to protect power grid, trees often lose

Utilities help prevent repeat of 2003 by trimming trees, but with significant outcry

Associated Press
In battle to protect power grid, trees often lose
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In this Tuesday, July 16, 2013 photo shows John Canzoni outside his Walton Hills, Ohio home. Electric utility tree-trimmers have made their mark on the picturesque hillside where branches coming into contact with high-power lines helped set off a chain-reaction blackout stretching to Canada and the East Coast and fried household appliances 10 years ago. But the sound of chain saws isn’t welcome to tree lovers who now see open skies where tall trees once shaded the power lines and the neighborhood. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

WALTON HILLS, Ohio (AP) -- An aggressive, national tree-trimming campaign since the blackout of 2003 appears to have had the intended effect. But the applause over the power-industry equivalent of a buzz cut isn't rising from at least one part of the republic: tree lovers.

In 2010, a Blair County, Pa., man was put on probation for five years for threatening a trimmer. In 2011, police in Springfield, Mo., arrested a man with a gun who confronted a utility tree-trimmer on his property. And in 2005 in Waco, Texas, a woman upset by her "butchered" trees pleaded no contest to firing warning shots in front of tree trimmers.

In the part of Ohio where a high-voltage line sagging into a tree in startled residents with a boom and burned out appliances in August 2003, utility workers and contractors have been threatened, and some property owners have even been thrown into jail, according to Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.

"Homeowners, rightly so, have a strong allegiance and a strong affinity for the trees on their property or adjacent to their property," said Wes Kocher, a certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. But "they want power and they want electricity all the time. Nobody wants a power outage. But, at the same time, it's almost a NIMBY-ism, the 'not in my backyard' approach."

Power companies are trying to balance the power demand and the need for what they call "vegetation management" with homeowners' love for towering greenery.

"If that tree hadn't gone up and bit that power line in Ohio in 2003, I don't think we would be in that situation today," said William Booth, a senior electricity adviser with the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The trimming appears to be working. Trees fall on local lines all the time during storms, of course. But there has not been a single instance since 2008 of customers losing power because overgrown trees or branches knocked out a major transmission line, according to Jessica Bain, an expert at the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which tracks utility performance.

FirstEnergy, whose operating companies stretch from Ohio to the East Coast, has at times pursued legal action to expand the zone around power lines where it can trim trees and branches, spokesman Mark Durbin said.

"Trees are a very emotional issue," Durbin said in an email.

In the past 10 years, he said, the utility has spent about $320 million to clear 13,000 miles of transmission line corridors, a total expanded by FirstEnergy's merger with Allegheny Energy.

By and large, the reaction in Walton Hills, the epicenter of the cascading power failure 10 years ago, ranges from acceptance to muted criticism.

Staring at overhead power lines that cross above his winding driveway, 59-year-old Fred Hoenigman said the trimming around it reminds him of a shadeless urban landscape, not the otherwise leafy village he and about 2,200 other people call home.

"They cut all the trees down that used to be as high as the wires are," Hoenigman said. "Just a big open stretch of nothing; you could have left some of these trees."

But his wife, Dawn Hoenigman, 55, is at peace with the tree-trimming: "We definitely don't want to go through the blackout that we had that year."

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Kantele Franko in Columbus and Jonathan Fahey in New York contributed to this report.

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